Jennifer West on the evolving BME PhD

May 7, 2019

Jennifer West works with graduate student Jeffrey Ashton in her lab

Jennifer West works with graduate student Jeffrey Ashton in her lab

As the Fitzpatrick Family University Professor of Engineering at Duke, Jennifer West leads a vibrant lab focused on biomaterials and tissue engineering. Beyond mentoring her own doctoral students, West serves as associate dean for PhD Education for the Pratt School of Engineering, where she helps PhD students across the school develop the necessary skills for success both inside and outside the lab.

Are you seeing a shift in the kinds of careers Duke BME graduate students are pursuing?

We have noticed an interesting trend at Duke. Previously, about 52 percent of students would go on to careers in industry and nearly 40 percent would go on to academia, whether that was a faculty position or a post-doctoral fellow position. Now, we’re seeing more and more students want to become entrepreneurs. It’s interesting to see how that translates to their research projects. In addition to impressive research publications, students are now pursuing projects that they can use as the basis for a startup, and they’re trying to collect data that they could present to a venture capitalist.

How does the department support this growing entrepreneurial interest?

Last year Duke BME launched BRiDGE [the Bioengineering Research Initiative to Develop Global Entrepreneurs] to provide resources to lower the activation barrier to get a company off the ground. This incubator allows students and faculty more breathing room to develop their idea rather than spend all of their time raising the capital themselves, which is helpful for new entrepreneurs. Recent graduates, like Kelli Luginbuhl, PhD’17, have moved into the space to launch their own companies and learn from faculty entrepreneurs.

Duke BME also does a lot of work with the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, which is another resource that helps bring innovations from the lab to the bedside.

What sets Duke BME apart from other biomedical engineering PhD programs?

Students usually don’t begin their thesis research until they’ve completed the first year of their PhD program. But at Duke, our students can begin their PhD thesis research right away, and that makes our program fairly unique. We let students dive into their work right away, and we offer them a flexible curriculum that they can tailor to their intended career path. If they’re interested in medicine they are encouraged to work with colleagues in the medical school; if they’re interested in entrepreneurship they can use the various resources across Duke to get a startup running. And our Engineering PhD Plus program connects them to a really impressive array of professional development tools that can help them prepare for whatever path they want. It’s a truly collaborative environment, both within the Pratt School of Engineering and across Duke as a whole.